By Hillary Dodge
During the full pound and punch of her morning run, in the steadily lifting gloom, Mary sees a figure, indistinct and blurry, at the end of the broken street where no one ought to be. She skids to a stop and blinks. The figure is gone.
Most of her neighborhood is undeveloped and has been for some time. There are wide open tracts of weeds, cracked flats of dirt, and animal holes in abundance. There are also three foundations, gaping holes, really, and another with a rotting timber frame above. It is as if the contractors went out for lunch and never returned. Even the For-Sale signs have disappeared, perhaps toppled by wind or kids and eventually buried.
There is nowhere for a person to have gone. She approaches one crumbling basement hole after another. In one she sees the shape of a snake slither into the deep shadows. In another she is impressed by scattered anthills, which make the basement floor resemble the cratered surface of the moon in the early morning half-light. She sees a spider dangling beneath its intricate silvery web. But there is no person. Nor any sign of one.
Something about the foundation with the rotting timbers doesn’t feel right. Its framework is tilted and warped and she is overcome by an inexplicable feeling of grief. She avoids looking at it.
As she retraces her steps through the un-neighborhood, she only counts three rabbits scattering as the sun slips above the horizon. Perhaps they are being scared off or eaten by the dogs she hears howling and fighting at night.
Mary jogs past her house and up the front steps of her next door neighbor’s. Behind the kitsch patchwork flower pot, she retrieves a set of keys tucked inside a false stone. Inside Bev’s house, it is much the same. Cozy countrified décor with As Seen on TV gadgets.
The remote control in its place of honor on the easy chair arm brings to mind better days. Mary closes her eyes for the briefest moment before George, the cat, finds her, slowly inhaling. The cinnamon apple scent of Bev’s decorative candle compulsion, however, is not present. She looks towards the false mantel and sees the three fat red candles sitting mutely in their crystal dishes.
George races up to her and paws at her, stretching himself full up her leg, as if about to jump to her shoulder. Mary leans down to pet the orange long-hair, cooing to him gently. He yowls back, visibly agitated. It is very uncharacteristic of him. Bev, like too many others, is in the hospital. She’s been there for almost a full week. Mary is beginning to get worried about her and wonders for the third time that week if she should go against the old woman’s wishes and just call her son already. But perhaps he is sick as well?
George weaves about her feet anxiously, making nervous guttural noises as she moves towards the kitchen. When she pries open the lid to the dry food canister, Mary is puzzled. Hadn’t it been full the day before? Today, it is almost empty, down to the last cup or three of George’s food. Mary dumps an overflowing scoop into his bowl and decides to add his food to her list for the grocery tomorrow.
She tries to sit with George for a while, stroking his bristling fur to calm him down. But he won’t stay put and keeps moving all over the couch. Besides that, Mary herself feels unsettled. Her thoughts return again and again to the figure she saw in the gloom. There’s no way she imagined it. She isn’t that sort of person. Mary pushes the uncomfortable feeling out of her mind.
There is no newspaper waiting on the driveway when she returns home. Perhaps her husband has already taken it in, although he isn’t typically an early riser. But on going to his room and knocking, she finds it empty, the bed not slept in. Her stomach feels hot and leaden. So, it’s come to this, has it? He’s not even coming home anymore.
Mary grits her teeth and passes by the hall mirror. Out of the corner of her eye she sees her hair. Pausing and stepping backwards, she looks in the mirror. How did it get to be so gray? And her eyes, where the hell did those wrinkles come from? Suddenly she is beyond furious at her husband and what he’s done to her—all the stress he’s put her through. Isn’t it enough with what’s been going on around them? Why does he have to add to it?
Mary stomps into the kitchen, teeth clenched and knuckles white at her sides. She fills the coffee maker and opens the fridge to grab the milk. Only the milk is gone. The sugar, she also discovers, is running low.
With a growl, Mary grabs the notepad and pen off the countertop to begin a grocery list. Milk. Sugar. Cat food. She notices that her hand has begun to shake. What else has her rat of a husband forgotten to tell her about? Mary knows these are small indiscretions in the greater scheme of things. But she is unwilling to forgive him. She pockets the list and takes a deep breath.
Her chest is too tight and Mary tells herself that she has lost any appetite she may have had after her run. She goes to retrieve the step ladder from the pantry but it isn’t there. She finds it in the garage with its step broken. When the hell did that happen?
Using a chair, she retrieves the pills from the cabinet above the fridge. She quickly swallows two of the small round pills with a gulp of coffee. It is hotter than she expects and she drops the bottle, spilling the pills onto the floor. Cursing, she squats to pick them up. There is a brownish stain on the gray tile. Mary rubs at it with a finger but it does not come up. She pops another pill into her mouth and chews it to hold back the tears.
She would like to go somewhere but she had promised her parents and son that she would take a few days off and stay out of the city.
Mary decides to keep busy with chores. She goes into her son’s room to retrieve his laundry and is surprised—almost concerned—to see that he has already washed and folded his own laundry. His boxers and shirts sit in neat stacks on his freshly made bed. His clothes look faded and somehow permanent. She experiences an empty feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Mary is immediately suspicious of something. Does Dylan know about the trouble between her and Michael? Is he perhaps trying to smooth something, anything over to lessen the tension of the house? Mary shakes her head. That’s not like him. Dylan is a typical moody teenager. He would deal by stuffing his head into his headphones and listening to that screaming racket he calls music.
The thought of her son retreating into his music makes her smile and miss him terribly. He’s only an hour or so away at her parents’ house, but today the distance feels too heavy. She reminds herself that it was the right thing to do—sending him away until the danger was past. She also reminds herself that she can simply call him later in the day to hear his voice. She smiles as she pictures him swiping a lock of brown hair out of his eyes—that silly resistance to cutting his hair—and hears his voice cracking innocently in contrast to the bad boy look he sought.
Thinking of the phone call has reminded her of something else and she returns to the kitchen and picks up the phone. She dials her salon and leaves a message requesting an appointment ASAP. It is too early for anyone to be in but Mary finds herself imagining the blinking light of the answering machine and the digital display beside it. In her mind’s eye, she sees the numbers flashing and increasing one by one each day until the machine is full and will no longer accept new messages.
Mary shakes herself out of the morbid daydream. What is wrong with her?
She decides to wash the dishes—much less than she’s used to seeing in the sink—and actually takes the time to soap and rinse them by hand. She sees the bubbles pop, expire and thinks for a moment that she will turn on the TV to see the latest reports. But she almost instantly decides against that. She doesn’t want to know what is happening, how the world is dying.
A sudden thought occurs to her. She can’t have imagined the person. They probably hid in the least stable-looking house precisely because they hoped she wouldn’t look in there. But why would they be hiding? Because they are someone trying to get away from the city and all that chaos. They are someone taking cover from the world and the sickness that is bringing it to its knees.
This means that things are getting worse. Worse than she suspected it would get. And so soon. It is barely three weeks since the first confirmed cases. Isn’t it? Her timeline is fuzzy.
If the person is hiding, then they are scared. It isn’t likely that they are dangerous, Mary concludes. She makes up her mind to bring them some canned food. She grabs a can of Italian Wedding soup—the kind with a pop-lid for easy opening. She’s never cared for the stuff but her husband loves it. Well, he can just go buy more if he wants it that bad. She also takes a bottle of water and a half-eaten box of crackers. She stuffs these things inside a plastic grocery bag.
Outside the sun burns the world pale. The asphalt looks bleached like a dead thing stretched out on a beach. Weeds split through the dirt-filled cracks and even they look to be more a shade of gray than green.
A distant rumbling draws her attention as Mary walks towards the unfinished neighborhood. She stops and turns towards the noise. It is a truck, shifting and accelerating somewhere out on the highway. Mary is startled to realize that she hasn’t heard a single vehicle all day. The sound of its diesel engine reverberates through the empty air as the truck draws near, passes close, and then coasts away. Mary imagines the world beyond her quiet neighborhood as if it were a vast ocean, only passable now and then in great churning, thundering vessels.
When the sound of the truck is lost to her ears, Mary continues down the street.
The contractors got as far as the sidewalks and the required utility connections. She stands at the curb in front of the half-made house and watches its openings closely. There is no movement of any kind.
The house doesn’t quite have a front or sides for that matter. It is a skeleton of a house with timber ribs protruding from the sagging plywood subfloor. There isn’t even a roof. Mary can see into the house and right through it. There is no one inside. But there is a basement that is mostly covered over and protected from the elements.
Mary mounts the ramp that stretches from the ground in front to the gaping doorway. She shifts her weight carefully and enters the house.
“Hello?” she calls, lilting her voice as if it is a question.
No one replies.
Mary moves towards the mostly enclosed cave that is the opening to the basement. Simple wooden treads lead down into the gloom. A smell wafts up and Mary immediately places it from her childhood on the farm. Sweet and dry, unmistakably putrid and yet also, aged somehow, lessened over time. It is the smell of the decaying cow she stumbled upon one summer, far out in the west field. What was left was mostly a desiccated rind, the maggots having moved on long ago.
The basement isn’t really that dark. She can see well enough thanks to the window wells and an unfinished or collapsed part of the floor above. She skirts the hole and the pile of debris beneath.
Behind the stairs, she finds the person. He is huddled in the corner farthest from the light, bent double, curled up as a child might do when they are frightened of the monster under their bed. The man is wearing a navy sports coat and dark jeans. There is a dried stain on the concrete beneath and around him. He is as still as the dead.
Mary sets the bag of food onto the floor and lets out a shaking breath. She cannot see any part of the person, only his clothes. But the clothes sag as if the figure beneath has shrunken. The jacket is spotted and discolored.
How long has this guy been here? And how long was he dying alone in the dark?
Beside the person rests a rusting hand trowel. An arm partially extends from the huddled body towards the trowel as if it was important to them somehow. The hand is out of sight within the sleeve, a trivial mercy for which Mary is grateful. She leaves the bag of food and ascends back into the daylight.
Mary strips her clothes off in the garage and tilts open the trash can to dispose of them. There are already several sets of t-shirts and pants wadded inside. She pauses, her arm holding her clothes in midair above the open can. She knows those clothes because they are hers. But what are they doing in the trash? Did her husband do it? Did he come home while she was out? Did he walk his usual route from the train station, whistling and snapping, while planning to pop inside her closet and throw out all her clothes?
Mary drops her clothes inside and slams the lid. She bounds up the three steps into the house, fury giving her speed. She doesn’t care that she’s naked.
There is no reply. She waits a breath or two before plodding into the house. He isn’t there.
Mary returns to the kitchen where her bottle of pills still sits on the counter. She twists open the lid and pops another pill into her mouth. She is shaking again and her breathing feels strained. She imagines spores lifting off the dead person’s jacket to dance with the dust in the light from the window wells. She remembers her sigh and deep inhalation when she discovered that the man was dead—long dead.
Mary decides she will ask Michael about the clothes when he shows up. But at this moment, she wants nothing more than a scalding hot shower.
Under the spray of the showerhead, Mary discovers a wound on her head. It is roughly half an inch above her right ear, buried in her hair. She found it while sliding her fingers through her hair when applying shampoo. Frowning, she traces her slippery fingers over the ridge, feeling its shape and testing for tenderness.
Sliding open the shower door, Mary steps onto the bath mat and turns her head to look at the wound in the mirror. She can only see a part of it but from what she can see, it looks like an old wound, already pinked into scar tissue.
Mary returns to the shower puzzled. She can’t remember any injury that might have caused that. She is filled with uncertainties and squeezes her eyes shut, thrusting her face beneath the spray. She backs into the tile and leans there, inhaling the lavender scent of her body wash, a washcloth draped over her face, blocking the steam and light. She practices deep breathing and the mental mantras she’s been taught to use.
She is feeling more frazzled and uncertain as the day peaks and dips towards afternoon. She has begun to manifest her old habits of lip chewing and fingertip counting. Her lips hurt and she tastes blood. Her fingers begin to feel fatigued from touching edges and corners.
Mary brews a cup of Sleepytime tea, the mint and lemongrass to help calm her nerves. She settles onto the worn denim couch to read. She picks a book off the coffee table, a classic she’s always wanted to read but never got around to starting. She fights hard to stay focused, to keep her mind from wandering and wondering. The characters chase each other across various probabilities and imagined insults. Although she’s never read it, the story seems too familiar and after an hour or so, Mary gives up.
She is just drifting off into the blank void of sleep when the screen door slams. Instantly, she is on her feet, heat beating, her brain bleary.
“Michael? Are you finally home?” she calls out.
Silence. She is getting tired of this routine she’s developed. Her calling out, questioning the air, never to be answered.
Mary steps into the hall and looks towards the front door just in time to see a figure pass in front of the screen. She immediately recognizes the blue sports jacket with the mottled stains. The inconsistencies and mysteries of the day come crashing back on her in an instant and for a moment, Mary is paralyzed, struck with a horror so primal she can hardly breathe.
But then she is angry and she stomps down the hall and shoves open the screen.
Her yard is empty but there is a sudden crash from the garage. The door is wide open but she’s sure she left it closed. Mary lets the screen door slam shut behind her as she takes the front steps two at a time. She turns into the garage.
It is also empty. But there is movement. A cabinet swings lazily open as if someone just pushed the door closed, not allowing the latch to catch before rushing out. Mary approaches the work bench and the cabinet above. Michael, being the tinker and fiddler that he was, always kept his tables and cabinets in perfect order. For each tool there was a place and for each place, there was a tool.
Except that on the backside of the cabinet door, Mary sees a tool is missing. The shape is familiar, cylindrical at the top and scoop-shaped at the bottom. A place where a trowel might live.
Mary doesn’t pause to think this through. She is out the door and running across the street towards the half-house in the unfinished neighborhood, swirling and remote memories of days just like this one opening up inside her mind.
In the basement again, she watches the corpse for any sign of movement. She is sure that this is the same figure from this morning. She is so confused, she doesn’t even know the right questions to ask the air.
Fearing contagion, she pulls her sleeve over her hand as she squats down beside it. With a quick, fearful movement, she prods the body. It is long, long dead. Of that, she is certain. Part of it is stuck to the floor and when she exerts a little more force to get it to roll over, a piece of it tears away and remains tacked firmly to the concrete. Mary feels the acid burn of bile rising in the back of her throat. The face is unrecognizable. It is collapsed in on itself, skin folded over and shrunken.
She doesn’t look at it for long because something else has caught her attention. In the dead thing’s hand is a crumpled paper and beneath the body is a small hole where a pump might have been placed eventually. It appears that the person was digging something out of the hole when they died.
Mary reaches across the space between herself and the corpse and tugs a mud-caked Ziploc bag out of the hole. Inside is a gun and a stack of twenty-dollar bills—probably a thousand dollars. Holding her breath, she takes the crumpled paper from the withered hand.
As she carefully unfolds it, a terrible premonition washes over her; with a sinking feeling she recognizes her husband’s handwriting. A glance at the hand confirms that the corpse is who she thinks it is; the gold band she gave to him sixteen years ago glints from the second finger from the left.
In silence, she reads his words. She reads them over and over, her breath held tight and hard in her chest. He must have been sick and came here to retrieve what he’d hidden for the worst-case scenario—if one of them was left alone.
She can’t know what has happened to her son and her parents. But she does know that this man—this man she both loved and hated—is no longer with her or anyone else. Despite his infidelity and their rapidly deteriorating relationship, he had still been trying to reach her. His letter of apology and love, clutched tight in his dying fist, declared more than he himself was able to show or say for the last year of their relationship.
She does not know how long ago that was. In a flash, she recalls the broken step stool and the brown stain on the kitchen floor. She feels the raised scar on her head through the coarseness of her gray hair. How many times has she been down in this basement with the corpse of her husband? How many days has she gone out running every morning thinking it was Sunday all over again?
Mary presses her husband’s letter to her forehead and weeps. The tears roll down her cheeks and her air is compressed inside her lungs, wanting to burst out, but held there by her misery. Her fingers are shaking and she is silently crying as she tucks the letter back inside his hand and drops the Ziploc back into the hole. She rolls him gently over and stands.
When she returns to the house, all she wants to do is go to sleep. But first, she must visit her son’s room.
It is just the way she left it on that last day. How long ago could that have been? She tries to remember through the fog of the past days, weeks…months. She’s sure she must have gone into his room and picked up the laundry scattered on the floor, like she always did after her morning run. She knows also, that she probably washed them, folded them, and sat them on his bed, waiting for him to return.
And there they are. Mary notes how faded the clothes have become. Weeks, then. There is dust on his pillow and Mary furiously plucks it from the bed and holds it up under her nose. His smell is already gone. Months.
She squeezes the pillow as she fights back the tears. He never came home.
She curls her hand into a fist and pounds her temple, where the scar is still pink. If she hadn’t been injured, could she have… she cannot finish the thought. It is too horrible.
In her room, her bed waits. There is nothing she can do but kick off her shoes and crawl beneath the cold sheets. She is so tired. Too tired to do anything that might make tomorrow a different day. Her sobs are silent and her grief curls her body in on itself.
In the morning, Mary rises and stretches. She wonders briefly how she could have possibly fallen asleep in her clothes. Lacing up her running shoes, she remembers with both anticipation and dread that next week her son will return from her parent’s house. Although she misses her son beyond her understanding, she hates knowing she will have to return to the charade of living with a husband, a father who no longer cares.
About the Author
HILLARY DODGE is a writer and editor based out of Santiago, Chile. She has a Masters degree in Library and Information Sciences which is probably one of the coolest degrees out there – no joke. She enjoys shooting zombies like a boss, reading over a cup of steaming coffee, goat cheese on everything, and supporting fellow authors and creators.
Last year, Hillary and her husband quit their jobs and relocated their family to South America to collaborate on a cookbook entitled The Chilean Family Table. Throughout the next year, they will travel the length of this thin country, exploring the food culture of Chile while researching their book. You can follow their travels online at www.gourmetfam.com. She is also the nonfiction editor for Gamut Magazine and if you don’t know what that’s about yet, it’s about time you visited www.gamut.online, don’t you think?
About the Narrator
Christiana Ellis is an award-winning writer and podcaster, currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her podcast novel, Nina Kimberly the Merciless was both an inaugural nominee for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction: Long Form, as well as a finalist for a 2006 Podcast Peer Award. Nina Kimberly the Merciless is available in print from Dragon Moon Press. Christiana is also the writer, producer and star of Space Casey, a 10-part audiodrama miniseries which won the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Production by the American Society for Science Fiction Audio and the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Drama. In between major projects, Christiana is also the creator and talent of many other podcast productions including Talking About Survivor, Hey, Want to Watch a Movie? and Christiana’s Shallow Thoughts. Christiana is currently acting as the Dungeon Master in a real-play Dungeons and Dragons podcast, called SO MANY LEVELS, available in both video and audio formats at christianaellis.com.